Off Stage

Tough start for tabla player

Nawaz Mirajkar.
Nawaz Mirajkar.PHOTO: G-ONE PHOTOGRAPHY

Born into a family of tabla players, Nawaz Mirajkar learnt to play the traditional Indian drum under the strict but loving hand of his father.

He first took the stage for a performance on the instrument at age seven in his birth city of Pune, India, watched by senior artists such as sitar maestro Ustad Usman Khan. It was an experience that left its mark on him as a performer.

"My performance in the end was well received, but I started feeling bad thinking of what I just played and how my father would feel.

"As soon as I went offstage, I ran crying to my father and apologised to him, telling him I was sorry it wasn't up to his expectations," says the 40-year-old, who is married to a housewife and has two children.

"He said I played well. That's when I got one of my first few lessons on what it's like to perform. That's when I understood that the practice before a performance must be as dedicated and gruelling as possible. But when one is performing, it's about letting go of insecurities and just playing what you can and what you feel."

This month, Nawaz, who moved to Singapore in 1996 and received the National Art Council's Young Artist Award in 2011, will share the stage with santoor (Indian dulcimer) player Dhananjay Daithankar in Sangeet Sayamkaal - Music Of The Dusk, exploring melodies that evoke feelings of devotion and solemnity.

How did you get your start with the tabla?

My grandfather, Ustad Mehboob Khan Mirajkar, was a tabla maestro who passed the tradition to my father, who passed it to me. I was born into a family of tabla players, so there was no official start to my training. Tabla was just something that became a daily occurrence in my life.

My father was a loving parent and teacher. He was as strict as he was caring.

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When I was young, practising for hours was not a priority for me. Sitting down and practising continuously did not come easily to me. But my father was very serious in terms of scheduling time for my schoolwork and daily practice.

During group classes, he used to get annoyed at even the smallest mistake I made. As a child, I used to wonder why I was being pushed so hard, not realising that it was love he was showing me - as a father and a teacher. It took me years to realise how priceless these practice sessions were and how invaluable the tough treatment he gave me was.

My father died at age 77 in December 2014.

What do you like most about playing the tabla?

It is that it is not just a percussion instrument. The tabla is played as a very melodic percussive instrument. Till today, the variety of tones that can be produced on these two drums never fails to amaze me. The left drum especially is wondrous in its ability to create many different pitches.

There is a fluid, tonal quality that the tabla has that sets it apart from most other percussion instruments. It also has this intrinsic character that is beyond that of a drum. Its qualities enable it to merge seamlessly with a variety of international music styles, be it classical or contemporary.

What are your pre-show rituals?

I don't have any specific ones. I get into the mood of the whole concert and think of my gurus and seek their guidance. I also think of the show and whatever piece we are playing. This helps me to reach a mentally and emotionally relaxed state that lets me be receptive enough onstage to perform at my peak.

It takes years to be able to achieve that calmness amid the chaos that can ensue backstage.

For tabla, the fingers and the tendons need to be very relaxed and supple, so in the cold environment of most performing venues, a bit of warming up of the fingers is required.

What is your advice for aspiring tabla players?

Keep practising. As with any subject, repetition is key. For tabla, it is paramount. Only with practice comes experience. And with experience comes understanding, to which there is no end.

Always be creative. There is no end to what you can achieve.

Keep trying new things, while not losing sight of the culture we belong to. Tabla will not forsake you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Tough start for tabla player'. Print Edition | Subscribe